On 10 March 1950, Pietro Maria Bardi, director of the São Paulo Art Museum (MASP, which opened in October 1947), signed letters addressed to several American educational institutions. His purpose in writing was to request the curricula of these schools as an aid to developing the first design course in Brazil—the Institute of Contemporary Art (IAC), which, slated to open the following year, was to be run as a part of the museum and would also be the country’s first design school. Despite being brief and objective, his missives did not fail to mention the “spirit of the Bauhaus,” explicitly linking the institute he hoped to found with a pedagogical lineage whose objectives and approach he aimed to share:
An Institute of Contemporary Art has been founded by this Museum especially to teach architecture and industrial design such as pottery, glass, graphic art, iron, work, weaving, photography, furniture, mosaics, plastics in general.
Artists and well known architects have been invited to teach in the School; Max Bill, Piccinato, Nervi, Ruchti and others have already accepted the invitation.
We would like very much to check our activities with yours which, since along time we highly appreciate.
We should like to accomplish something similar to what you are doing, always into the spirit of the Bauhaus. Therefore we should remain most grateful to you if you could send us some publication referring to the curriculum of your Academy of Art.
Looking forward to hearing from you we remain at your full disposition for any information and we thank you in advance.
Believe us very sincerely yours.
P. M. Bardi – director1
Letters were sent to the board of directors of the Cranbrook Academy of Art as well as to Black Mountain College, where Josef and Anni Albers taught. Not only was there an explicit reference to the Bauhaus, but also the intention, as noted in Bardi’s letter, to invite the artist Max Bill to teach at the school.
An Italian art critic and merchant based in Brazil since 1946, Bardi had been entrusted by the Brazilian communications magnate Francisco de Assis Chateaubriand with the task of forming an art museum in the city of São Paulo soon after his arrival. The city had modernized rapidly in the years after the Second World War and, with the foundation of the International Biennial in 1951, immediately became an international hub of the arts. Bardi was not only the director of MASP. Together with his wife, the Italian architect Lina Bo Bardi, he edited Habitat, a magazine dedicated to architecture, the arts and design. The IAC opened on 1 March 1951, the same date that Max Bill, former Bäuhausler and future director of the Hochschule für Gestaltung in Ulm, opened an exhibition of his work at MASP.
Bardi’s ambition to reference Bauhaus methodologies in his new school was great and sustained. The archaic Europe he had abandoned was in the process of reconstruction; the continent’ population was still healing from the wounds suffered during the Second World War. In the postwar period, South America, and Brazil in particular, had emerged as a force of renewal that, unburdened by the weight of the antiquarian past, expressed its ambitions through a period of steady industrialization, an outcome of the import substitution policies the war had made necessary.
Bardi’s task in the years after the war had been to take advantage of low prices on the world art market2 in order to build up a collection at MASP that would rival any First World art museum.3 At the same time, by juxtaposing works from the remote past with items from contemporary industry, MASP launched itself as an institution of an entirely new character. The Museum showed graphic design and industrial objects, such as, for example, Thonet chairs, including them within this artistic set—a concatenation reverberating, one might say, with Bauhaus teachings. Moreover, given the dearth of educated design professionals to work in São Paulo’s burgeoning industries, founding a school of industrial design was an absolute necessity. This was also a reason, as Bardi wrote in numerous texts, why the school would continue the historic mission of the Bauhaus.
However, if in the letters sent to American schools Bardi made mention of a generic Bauhaus, in other texts Bardi referred explicitly to the Dessau Bauhaus—specifically, the period directed by Walter Gropius. This reference is key to how Bardi envisioned the IAC: he never mentioned Weimar or Hannes Meyer, nor Mies van der Rohe and the short-lived Berlin Bauhaus:
The famous “Bauhaus” was born with Gropius, Breuer and others, the school of industrial design creating numerous new solutions familiar to us today like steel-tube chairs, steel furniture, etc. Then the Americans continued and developed this experience at the well-known Institute of Design in Chicago, headed by Moholy-Nagy, former Bauhaus professor … All these initiatives cannot be ignored in Brazil, especially in São Paulo, a large industrial center. Today art can no longer be seen as a specialty of a closed group. It has to meet this transformation of the face of the world made by industry and in the same proportions.4
Or in this excerpt from a newspaper article published in Diário de São Paulo, one of the city’s main newspapers:
The Institute has a program that has not been tried by any of our artistic organizations up to now—it repeats in proportions that must of course be kept, the didactic plan formulated by Walter Gropius and his team in the largest art school that Germany has produced in this century: the Bauhaus of Dessau.5
One can also read an explanation of the Bauhaus and the Institute of Design in Chicago, written by one of the most important teachers of the IAC, Swiss architect Jacob Ruchti:
The I.A.C. course in São Paulo is an adaptation to our conditions and possibilities of the famous course of the Institute of Design in Chicago, directed by the architect Serge Chermayett (sic), and founded in 1937 by Walter Gropius and Moholy-Nagy as a continuation of the famous Bauhaus of Dessau. … The I.A.C. therefore represents in São Paulo—in an indirect way—the main ideas of the Bauhaus, after its contact with the North American industrial organization.6
There is also an affinity between Pietro Maria Bardi’s choice and that of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in its presentation (exhibitions, publications, etc.) on the Bauhaus Dessau and Gropius. The community of artists and artisans created in Weimar was out of the question for a school that had set out to construct a vision of design São Paulo industrialists might emulate, for whom “artisans” were upholsterers, reproducing historicist styles in their manual and decorative work for the city’s elite.
At the same time, from early on in its history some IAC teachers looked to the material and symbolic production of Brazil’s rural peasantry, urban poor and Indigenous populations, in some cases appropriating elements of the handicraft produced by these groups in the design of certain objects.
A similar concern was evinced in the thematic exhibitions of quotidian objects organized at MASP (one of the first didactic exhibitions of the museum had to do with the history of the chair), with objects consecrated by the history of art used to validate a de-hierarchization of cultural production. This conception probably derives, among other sources, from the theories of the art historian Alois Riegl, an important reference for the first Bauhaus, who inherited his influence from Henry van de Velde, founder of the school’s predecessor, the Grand-Ducal School of Arts and Crafts: for Gropius, for Pietro Maria Bardi and Lina Bo, as well as for the Italian intellectuals who gathered around MASP, Riegl remained a key thinker. The intention to flatten the hierarchy between the major and minor arts, as well as Riegl’s appreciation of the decorative arts7 and the ornamentation practices produced in the various crafts media, are included in the concept of Kunstwollen (a term first introduced in the mid-nineteenth century by the German archaeologist Heinrich Brunn to describe the characteristics and boundaries of aesthetic design in a given epoch), allowing one to see deep traces of universality in everyday objects. This line of thinking opened up a space for the symmetrical coexistence of so-called cult art and popular productions, creating affinities and overlaps between the cultured arts and practices of craftsmanship. A foundational thought for the Bauhaus in its first phase in Weimar, Kunstwollen also strongly informed the concepts of Pietro Bardi, Lina Bo as well as a number of intellectuals and teachers associated with the IAC.